BROOKINGS, S.D. — There was no hiding expectations for the South Dakota State football team at the beginning of this season. Coming off a Missouri Valley Football Conference co-championship with North Dakota State — even though one SDSU assistant coach voiced his displeasure on Twitter for having to share the trophy with the Bison — the Jackrabbits had their sights set on even bigger things.
An outright league title. A trip to Frisco, Texas, for the national championship game. Even the school’s first national title. Those were the types of goals the Jackrabbits and the media that cover them were talking about.
It wasn’t out-of-bounds. SDSU was coming off its best season since moving to Football Championship Subdivision and returned three of its most dynamic offensive players in school history — receiver Jake Wieneke, tight end Dallas Goedert and quarterback Taryn Christion. Goedert and Wieneke, both seniors, are expected to be drafted by NFL teams next April.
“Those were questions we answered. We didn’t come out and say we’re going to win a national championship,” Jackrabbits coach John Stiegelmeier said. “Our goal has always been, since our program has been position in the last five years when we’ve made the playoffs, we want to compete for a national championship. The reality is this year we have the best material in terms of some firepower we’ve ever had.”
Up until a couple of weeks ago, the results weren’t meeting the expectations. The Jackrabbits lost on Hobo Day at the brand-new Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium to Northern Iowa in a sloppy, ugly game. The score was 38-18, SDSU’s second loss in three weeks. The Jacks lost 19-7 at Youngstown State, a game in which the Penguins dominated from start to finish.
Suddenly, talk in Brookings changed from Frisco to fiasco. SDSU was 4-2 and didn’t own a quality win.
The last two weeks have soothed the grumblings. SDSU pounded Missouri State 62-30 and followed it with a 52-24 pounding of Western Illinois. For those adding at home, that’s 114 points in two games. The Jackrabbits are 6-2 heading into a massive matchup against the Bison.
But the questions linger.
Were the Jackrabbits victims of the high expectations? Championship teams don’t often stumble as badly as SDSU did in midseason. Do the Jackrabbits regret being so open about their lofty goals?
“I think the goals are still right there in front of us. Obviously we have three tough games to end the season, which can help us where we want to be. Ranking-wise, it’s not the biggest thing on our minds any more but if we win out we should be ranked fairly high and hopefully get that first round bye again,” Goedert said. “If not, the biggest thing is you just have to make the playoffs. I think Youngstown made it last year at 6-5 or 7-4 and went all the way to the championship game. You have to be able to play your best football at the best time and I believe we’re doing that right now.”
The flip side, for fatalists, is that SDSU could go 0-3 or 1-2 in the last two games and be a marginal playoff selection. It seems unlikely, given the offensive talent the Jacks possess. But if that happens, there will surely and rightly be talk of the Jackrabbits making a mistake by talking so big.
“I think people will claim it’s a mistake if we fall short. If we get there, they’ll say you have a great vision. There’s a lot of second-guessing in coaching,” Stiegelmeier said. “We were ranked, what, No. 4 or No. 5 in the preseason poll and I asked the guys ‘how do you feel about it men?’ They said, ‘No. 1 , those are our goals. We’re fine. No. 2 , that means we have a target on our back and we have to be that much more prepared every week.’ Our guys handled it. Again, the two losses, we’re not going to dwell on those, we’re trying to move ahead and get a win this week.”
The game against the Bison will go a long way in answering exactly how to judge this Jackrabbit team. A win will be huge. It will get SDSU back in the picture for a high playoff seed and a possible run at the national title. A loss will give the Jackrabbits their third loss, damage their hopes for a top 8 postseason seed and, perhaps most importantly, hang another loss on them by the program they’ve been trying to beat for eight years.
Yes, the Jacks beat the Bison last year in the regular season at the Fargodome. But NDSU got revenge with a 36-10 playoff pounding. If the Jacks lose, a fair question will be whether SDSU can get over the hurdle — even with the best team its had in Division I.
All those sky-high expectations will again look overcooked, and perhaps the Jacks will have only themselves to blame.
“I don’t think there was much outside pressure,” Christion said. “The expectations of ourselves, we had high expectations as a team this season. We knew what we were capable of doing and what we need to do to get there. I don’t think there were outside expectations or guys being nervous that way. It really just came from within, from our coaching staff and our players, our captains and leaders. We had high expectations and we want to follow through with those.”